Mutually Assured Distraction
Was the battle over the 1967 borders really necessary?
Last Thursday morning, President Barack Obama was getting ready to lay out his grand strategy for dealing with the Middle East's so-called "Arab spring." Or so we thought. He was going to explain what role America can play in promoting freedom, ending the era of dictatorship, supporting the protesters—while guarding America's interests and keeping an eye on the price and availability of oil.
And he did—sort of. But his message was completely lost, all because of one clause that has very little to do with the Arab spring or with the main body of his timely speech: "based on the 1967 lines with mutual swaps." That was it. Since then, Obama has been busy being puzzled (by the response), being angry (because of "distortions" of his position), having to hear lectures (more on that later), having to restate and explain his position (in yet another speech), bickering (with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), making commitments (he is still a good friend of Israel), and calming nerves (of anxious pro-Israel American Jews). In short, the president has been wasting his precious time and our less precious but still valuable time.
A week ago today, Netanyahu was getting ready for a pleasant visit to the United States. The pressure to offer more compromises to the Palestinians seemed to have subsided, following the surprise announcement of a Palestinian unity government that includes terrorist group Hamas. The stage was set for a triumphalist speech in front of a joint session of Congress in which he was going to present—or so the leaks from his office led us to believe—"new ideas" for the advancement of peace. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran a headline that looks almost comical today: "On eve of Netanyahu visit and AIPAC conference, Obama and Bibi appear on same page." Apparently, it was the same page but not the same book. So the last couple of days were all about going back to the habitual ceremony of denying a rift between the countries, back to the days of they "can't stand each other," back to the feelings of "mutual mistrust." For five days now, the prime minister has been busy being puzzled (it was an ambush), being angry (at the president), having to hear lectures (on the importance of advancing peace), having to explain (why the president's position endangers Israel), feeling the need to express expectations (that the president will go back to the Bush language), and calming nerves (so that the battle won't get out of hand). In short, the prime minister has been wasting his precious time and our less precious but still valuable time.
Simply put, the 1967 line is the line that used to be the border between Israel and its neighbors—Jordan, Egypt, and Syria—prior to the, well, 1967 war, the Six-Day War. And now, for the first time, a president is saying that this line would be the starting point for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians when they get to talking about the future border of a future Palestinian state. Is this an important policy shift or just a statement of the obvious? The experts have been debating this question for a few days now, but it seems that even the president himself hasn't made up his mind yet—or is playing a game of plausible deniability.
On Sunday morning, in Obama's speech to the pro-Israel delegates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (known as AIPAC, or "America's pro-Israel lobby"), the president said: "I know very well that the easy thing to do, particularly for a president preparing for re-election, is to avoid any controversy. But as I said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination." That seems to suggest that the president is ready to break bold new ground to avoid "procrastination." But in this same speech, Obama also said that "there was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties." Here he was trying to convince the crowd that all the brouhaha of recent days was much ado about nothing.
And it was—as the president also seemed to suggest Sunday morning, when he said that "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist" (namely Hamas, now Fatah's partners in the unity government). Or maybe it wasn't really about nothing: "[N]o matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option," the president also said.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.
Photograph of Benjamin Natanyahu by Baz Ratner/pool/Getty Images.